By Luke Baker and Ali Sawafta
RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - The head of the Palestinian anti-corruption body says he has clawed back $70 million in five years but his investigators have failed to uncover evidence to justify allegations that hundreds of millions of dollars in government funds have gone missing.
Rafiq al-Natsheh, chairman of the Palestinian Anti-Corruption Commission, said "tens of millions of dollars" needed to be tracked down and that one of the biggest challenges facing his team was getting funds back that had disappeared abroad.
After years of talk of vast sums going astray - the attorney general of the Palestinian Authority announced in February 2006 that he was investigating 50 cases of embezzlement from the authority's budget totaling $700 million - President Mahmoud Abbas is under pressure from donors to show he is taking action.
The European Union and the United States, both of which provide direct budget support to the Palestinians, want to see tighter controls, with the Europeans going as far as to send investigators to track where some of their funds have gone.
Natsheh, a political scientist who studied in Beirut and spent much of his career abroad, including in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, was appointed by presidential order in 2010. He was given sweeping powers to investigate misappropriation of funds, embezzlement, bribery, nepotism and any other corrupt practices.
"There is lots of talk about corruption, but there is very little actual corruption," the 81-year-old told Reuters in his offices in Ramallah.
"You hear people talk about billions, but it's not like that," said Natsheh, speaking carefully in English. "When it comes to the facts, showing the evidence, there is much less. I thought I would find more corruption."
Over the past five years, direct support to the Palestinian budget from the EU and others has fallen from around $1.3 billion a year to less than $700 million, with the decline attributed in large part to frustration over money not being spent where it was intended or not being fully accounted for.
Natsheh says he has heard the complaints, citing an article in the German weekly Der Spiegel alleging $1.7 billion had gone missing. But the commissioner, sipping tea and smoking Davidoff cigarettes, said there was nothing to back these claims.
"I asked everyone and I didn't find any evidence," he said.
"We hear many things from the Europeans and Americans, but the evidence isn't there," he said. "We are working according to the law. No one is guilty until it is proven."
The same goes for Palestinian NGOs set up to monitor corruption, he said. One NGO said it had 1,800 documented cases. But when asked for details, Natsheh said they provided information on just 10 cases, none of which checked out.
Since taking over the role, the commissioner says his staff of 50, including seven investigators, has recouped a total of $70 million for the Palestinian Authority. He lists a series of successes against senior officials, including three ministers and a director general of the finance ministry.
"We got $40 million back from Egypt and $20 million from Iraq," he said, describing deals in which Palestinian officials used state funds to do business abroad and pocketed the proceeds, rather than transferring them to the PA budget.
He mentions a conviction handed down by the corruption court against an adviser to former president Yasser Arafat, but the $34 million missing has not yet been recovered. The same goes for a case involving $1 million, and the former ambassador to Abu Dhabi was convicted of embezzling more than $2 million.
"The biggest challenge we face is to get the money back," he said. "There are many millions outside Palestine, so it depends on foreign countries for us to get the money back."
Asked how much needs tracking down, he talked of "tens of millions" of dollars, but wouldn't go into more detail.
"It's very stressful work, it's difficult," he said.
Despite the small successes, foreign diplomats remain very concerned about corruption in the Palestinian territories, whether in the PA or other bodies. As well as reducing their direct budget support, the EU and United States have also switched to more bilateral aid programs, where they have more control over how money is spent on the ground.
Natsheh's seven-year mandate expires next year. Despite his advancing years, he says he is full of energy and determination to pursue corruption wherever it may be hiding. He hopes to employ more staff soon, including more investigators.
A friend of Arafat and Abbas since the 1950s, when they lived in exile in Qatar and Kuwait, Natsheh says his powers extend to every government department and ministry, all the way up to the presidency, known as the Mukataa.
Asked if he would be prepared to investigate the Mukataa if he had reason to, he does not hesitate.
"If someone comes with evidence, we will investigate," he said. "But so far no one brought any accusations or evidence against the president or his office."
(Writing by Luke Baker, editing by Peter Millership)